Last weekend, I read a very interesting column about populist outrage and the American dream. Written by Steven Thomma, White House correspondent of the McClatchy newspaper group, the piece got me thinking once again about the value of sociological research and thought.
Thomma’s article, which appeared in our local paper under the headline “Fading American Dream Promotes New Political Rage,” begins by detailing some of the basic social changes fueling unrest among protestors Left and Right: stagnant and declining wages, increasing health care costs, job loss, and income gaps, as well as ongoing (and ineffective) wars, corporate bailouts, and skyrocketing debt. Very empirical, sociological stuff. Indeed, Thomma drew on research and findings from our field implicitly and quoted Harvard’s Bruce Western directly (on union declines and increasing income gaps in America).
Where the piece really caught my eye–and where Thomma took it up a notch, sociologically speaking–was in situating these structural and demographic shifts in the context of “something deeper” going on in American culture. Mobility–or the relative lack thereof–and rights were important touchstones for this discussion. However, it wasn’t just the actual facts about mobility (or rights) in the U.S. that are striking, but the American expectation and hope that both should be available and possible. For Thomma, this is where the American dream and the perceived loss of it come in. “The rules,” Thomma writes, “seem to be changing.” With these insights about cultural norms and expectations, we see that our politics, lives, and communities are shaped not only by how things are but how we want and expect them to be–and there is no greater cultural force in America than that crazy, inspiring dream so many of us share. The fact that Thomma quoted a political scientist to set up these points doesn’t make them any less sociological (or useful).
When I finished reading, I was left wondering what sociologists like me might contribute to public understanding on these themes. One contribution I can imagine centers on leadership and the American political structure. An orienting point for Thomma is that populists of both Left and Right are frustrated political leaders who have promised, but failed to deliver, change. Engaged citizens of all stripes, he believes, feel disheartened and betrayed. Clearly our political leaders have often failed us. They haven’t always done as well as they could have. But I think a more sociological orientation to the problem would situate leaders’ shortcomings in the context of our archaic and dysfunctional political institutions–two-party paralysis, decentralization, and so on–and, even more importantly, in the context of a culture that lacks a rich conception of and commitment to the public good andis fundamentally cynical about government itself.
A more sociological orientation would also, I believe, be a bit more critical and forward-thinking about the American dream itself. It wouldn’t just bemoan the loss of the dream as we have known it, but also consider how that dream–and the culture itself–is being (or perhaps should be) reshaped and tranformed, recast to fit the contemporary moment. It’s possible that new dreams and visions of America could emerge out of this angst–conceptions that would be less driven by utopian visions of limitless mobility and unabated freedom for all and more rooted in a more humble and informed (and yes, sociological) sense of ourselves, our relations to others, and our place in the world. I offer this possibility only hesitantly because it doesn’t sound as uplifting, inspiring, and patriotic as one might like. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that such a vision may not only be more realistic and sustainable at this point in our history, it would also be truer to another set of values, ideals, and imaginings that have helped to make America not only a great nation but also a fundamentally good one.